Monday, November 29, 2010

Pat live in Portland

Hey, if you're in Portland, Oregon on Friday, December 10th and have nothing better to do, why not fall by the Northwest Film Center and take in a samurai film? Namely The Hidden Blade (2004), the second in Yoji Yamada's Samurai Trilogy. I'll be introducing the film; I also wrote a bit about it in Warring Clans, Flashing Blades. There will be a book-signing after the screening, so if you've already bought a copy (god bless you), bring it and I'll sign it. Otherwise, there will be copies available for purchase. See you there!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Secret of the Urn

Another film I reviewed in my 2005 tome Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook was The Secret of the Urn (1966). I'm revisiting the film (as well as Destiny's Son) for the sake of Wildgrounds Blogathon 2010, as I feel the film is such a supreme achievement in the genre that it deserves a second look (or first look if you haven't seen it).

The legendary Kinnosuke Nakamura plays a one-eyed, one-armed wild man of a ronin named Tange Sazen. His injuries were received at the hands of a treacherous chamberlain who used the young samurai's loyalty to lord and han for his own nefarious purposes. Now this bakemono (monster, as most who encounter Tange Sazen call him), lives out his days in bitterness and mental instability. But boy can he swing a sword! Into his lap falls a tea urn inscribed with some secret writing leading to a fortune in ryo (gold coins), a million of them to be precise. The urn and gold belong to the Yagyu clan, and they need the one to find the other (the very fate of the clan depends on it). There are other factions and more layers of intrigue which I won't go into here.

The film was directed by Hideo Gosha, one of the Great Ones of samurai cinema. Therefore you have a more realistic level of screen violence (think blood and body parts), innovative use of moving camera, and the general sense of kinetic urgency emblematic of Gosha's style. The Secret of the Urn is an excellent film that also boasts an excellent cast. As with my last two posts, at least one member of the Seven Samurai is present, in this case Isao Kimura (who played the young guy samurai who falls in love with the farm girl). Then there's Seizaburo Kawazu, here playing a machiavellian shogunate official; he was in everything from Yojimbo to Tattooed Life to New Tale of Zatoichi to Mothra. Of particular interest to samurai film nerds is the presence, in a small role, of one Ryutaro Otomo. A Toei studios stalwart of the 50s and 60s, Otomo himself starred as Tange Sazen in at least half a dozen films, his first in 1952. (His version of the character was far more comical and OTT than Nakamura's here.) One wonders how he felt playing a high-ranking magistrate trying to convince Tange Sazen to leave town ...

So there it is. You can get a copy of Secret of the Urn here (you won't find it on Amazon). It's a great film, a fantastic entry in the genre, and just a roaring good time. Oh, and if you're interested in learning more about the character of Tange Sazen, I discuss him at length in my follow up to SD&LW, Warring Clans, Flashing Blades: A Samurai Film Companion.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Destiny's Son

I reviewed Destiny's Son (Kiru, 1962) in my first book, Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook, and it occurred to me that I hadn't seen this wonderful film since then, so I thought I'd revisit it. I'm pleased to say it's lost none of it's magic, none of it's power. If anything, it just gets better each time I see it. A perfect synthesis of Zen and bushido, I can safely say it's among the finest samurai films ever made.

The film stars the immortal Raizo Ichikawa as the proverbial man born under a bad sign. For starters, his mother was beheaded by his father shortly after his birth. No, it's not like that -- she was under penalty of death for having assassinated her lord's mistress (on orders from the chamberlain) and no one in the han was willing to carry out the sentence. She was actually pleased when her husband stepped forth, happy to die at the hand of the father of her child. (Gotta love that samurai class … )

Our hero is adopted by a kind man and raised up to be a good country samurai, but treachery soon rears it's ugly head, sparking a series of cataclysmic incidents that send the young man spiraling into the uncertain life of a wandering ronin. Oh, did I mention he's a brilliant swordsman? Would have to be, right? He's got this great form that so unnerves his opponents, they drop to the floor in exhaustion just trying to find some way to fight him.

This being a Kenji Misumi film, the visuals are gorgeous, the pacing tight, and the fight scenes thrilling. It's also one of three Misumi films I'm aware of where someone gets sliced in half … lengthwise. Yep, from topknot to tail, the guy just sort of flops open. Mind you, it's all very tastefully done, from a distance, so don't expect some horrendous blood bath. Blood is used sparingly in the picture, but effectively.

As for cast, all your Daiei favorites are here: Shiho Fujimura (mom); Shigeru Amachi (dad); Masayo Banri (a fugitive who strips off her clothes to create a diversion, bless her); Saburo Date (a duplicitous retainer) and of course Raizo. Also on hand is Seven Samurai alum Yoshio Inaba (the smiling one), here playing a murderous creep who cuts down Raizo's adopted father and sister.

If you don't feel like waiting for the next Raizo Ichikawa retrospective at your local arthouse to get a look at Destiny's Son, you can pick up a copy here. I can guarantee you won't regret it. And, if you haven't already, why not get a copy of Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves? My original review is better written and more thought out than this on-the-fly blog post. Up to you.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Vendetta of Samurai

This lesser-known entry in the samurai film canon will be of great interest to Kurosawa fans. Vendetta of Samurai (Araki Mataemon: Ketto kagiya no tsuji, 1952) features four of the seven samurai from Seven Samurai (Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, Daisuke Kato and Minoru Chiaki), as well as rubber-faced old farmer Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari). Vendetta relates the true story of a meticulously planned ambush and attack upon a mounted party protecting a murderer.

Leading the revenge is Mataemon (Mifune), a sword instructor and brother-in-law to young Kazuma (Akihiko Katayama) whose brother was recently slain by fellow clansman Matagoro (Chiaki). Mataemon and Kazuma are joined by chubby old Buemon (Toranosuke Ogawa) and chubby young Rokusuke (Daisuke Kato), forming a four-man vendetta squad. (Sorry, I realize that's a lot of names to throw at you, but not nearly as many as come flying at you in the film itself!)

Anyhow, the whole gimmick of the film, and it's a good one, is to show you what such an event must have really been like, in contradistinction to the legendary battle it became over time (in which Mataemon supposedly slew some 36 men). The opening of the film portrays just such a battle, a kabuki moment of sheer fantasy in which we see Mifune, Shimura and others covered in make-up, Mifune practically doing pirouettes as he slashes attackers left and right. I couldn't believe what I was seeing; I'm well acquainted with the work of director Kazuo Mori, and such corny, stagey samurai foppery was completely incongruous with his style. Then the voiceover explained things: This is how this famous incident is traditionally portrayed, whereas the film we're about to see is the real deal, how things really happened. I appreciate what the film sets out to accomplish, and consider it largely a success. There are moments of tedium, but I understand they're deliberate, in service to the realism of an actual ambush -- there's bound to be longueurs, no getting around it.

Vendetta was a Toho production, although Kazuo Mori is better known for his work at Daiei, helming scores of films throughout the 50s and 60s including a number of Zatoichis and Nemuri Kyoshiros. Of the films of his I've seen, my favorite is probably The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (Zoku Zatoichi monogatari, 1962), starring Shintaro Katsu and Tomisaburo Wakayama.

Vendetta of Samurai is an eye-opening look at what really happens when frightened men with big swords find themselves up against it. Some find courage, others lose heart, and some will invariably lose their lives. This is one film that tells it like it is and doesn't sugar coat the stark realities.

Japanese Film Blogathon 2010

Hey everbody, head over to Wildgrounds for the 2nd annual Japanese Film Blogathon. All the hip Japanese film bloggers (including yours truly) will be weighing in on their favorite films, offering fantastic insights and insider knowledge. The event runs through November 11th, so check back early and often!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Double Suicide at Sonezaki

Readers of this blog know I'm a big fan of 60s auteur Yasuzo Masumura. I collect his stuff. I already had a dozen titles, and was pleased to add number 13 just recently, Double Suicide at Sonezaki (Sonezaki shinju, 1978). It's an adaptation of a play by Monzaemon Chikamatsu (1653 - 1725), the Shakespeare of Japan (however while Shakespeare only wrote 37 plays, Chikamatsu penned some 130). Chikamatsu often looked to real-life tragedies of the day for material, and this play was no doubt based, more or less, on real events.

It's a tale of star-crossed lovers: Young, noble clerk Tokubei (Ryudo Uzaki) and knockout, heart-of-gold prostitute Ohatsu (Meiko Kaji). Events conspire against our pure-hearted lovers: 1) Since Ohatsu only sleeps with Tokubei (and never charges him), her boss is fed up and plans to sell her off to some rich provincial samurai; 2) Tokubei is swindled out of a small fortune he owed his uncle/boss by the wicked Kuheiji (Isao Hashimoto); and 3) Kuheiji adds insult to injury by accusing Tokubei of attempting to swindle him and subsequently beating the shit out of him with the help of some local cops. The public humiliation, personal injury and loss of face is too much for Tokubei -- he decides to end it all. And his lady love is on board as well. It's shinju (lover's suicide) for the both of them. But what's this? Evidence of Kuheiji's heinous crimes comes to light. Kokubei is in the clear! His uncle decides to pay off Ohatsu's debt and bless their marriage. There's no longer any need for shinju. If only they can be found and stopped in time …

Sonezaki Shinju is one of Chakamatsu's most beloved sewamono (domestic drama) plays, a histrionic melodrama full of fiery furor and purple passion. Masumura has his actors play their parts in a highly exaggerated manner which I found quite entertaining. Isao Hashimoto as the evil Kuheiji is particularly vile and wonderful, all maniacal cackling and facial grimaces, like Richard III, Iago and Snidely Whiplash all rolled into one. Fans of the incomparable Meiko Kaji (Lady Snowblood, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion) will want to see this film, as she's incandescently beautiful in it. I don't know if it's the exquisite period costumes, the hair and make-up, or simply her passionate performance -- maybe a combo, but one thing's for sure: she's utterly captivating. You just can't keep your eyes off her.

Then there's the violence. I have to say, I was a little shocked by the brutality in a number of scenes. Perhaps Masumura was trying to convey the reality of life in early 18th century Japan. Given the strict hierarchical structure of society during the Tokugawa period, I have to think this film offers an insight into how things really were for those who found themselves on the wrong side of law and/or convention. Taking some of the edge off is the fabulously incongruous score. As with many a samurai drama of the 70s, scenes of desperate men in topknots play out to the mellifluous strains of Spanish guitars or electric blues. It's not quite as bizarre as the waka-jawaka disco guitars of the Hanzo the Razor series (the second installment of which was directed by Masumura), but there's no not noticing it if you're American and were born at a certain time in the 20th century …

As with all of Masumura's films, I've got two words of advice: See it! His was an impeccable talent, his themes invariably turning to the darkness of the human heart. He did everything from corporate espionage (Black Test Car, Giants and Toys) to sex comedy (A Lustful Man) to ero-guro (Blind Beast) to war films (Red Angel) to lesbian love (Manji) to Shintaro Katsu vehicles (The Razor: The Snare, Yakuza Soldier) to, here, Chikamatsu sewamono. If any of these films sounds good to you, I'll say it again: See it!